David Grier is the classic guitarist’s guitarist—not terribly well-known by the general public despite a long, stellar career working with just about everyone who’s anyone in the bluegrass and Nashville country music communities over the past four-plus decades, but uniformly admired by fellow guitarists for his amazing skill and versatility. Both a virtuoso and a brilliant and inventive accompanist, he can play just about any style. He’s put out a number of solo albums (mostly on his own Dreadnought Recordings label) and also been part of several different groups, including the groundbreaking Psychograss, the Big Dogs, and, more recently, the acclaimed Helen Highwater Stringband, a bluegrass quartet.
Two other members of the HHS appear on Grier’s excellent latest release, Ways of the World: fiddler Shad Cobb and mandolinist Mike Compton both help out on vocals, joining an impressive list of young and veteran players that includes mandolinist Casey Campbell, fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Dennis Crouch, drummer John Gardner, guitarist Bryan Sutton (playing electric), singers Tim O’Brien, Maura O’Connell, and Andrea Zonn, and several other musicians, all top-flight. The shocker—if that’s the right word—is that for the first time on any of his albums, Grier handles the lead vocals on a number of tracks—and quite ably at that! It’s a marvelously eclectic affair dominated by Grier originals that sound like timeworn classics. There are bluegrass turns, some jazz-influenced numbers, and a pair of trad fiddle tunes given new life. Needless to say, there’s a ton of serious flatpicking on the album.
I caught up with Grier by phone from his Nashville home. We chatted about the album, his favorite guitars, and about growing up in the bluegrass world as the son of a bluegrass banjo star, Lamar Grier, an alumnus of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Full disclosure: I have a soft spot for anyone who pronounces the word “git-tar.”
I guess some of your fans will be surprised to hear you sing so much on the album. What made you go in that direction?
I’ve been playing forever, but never really sang. Oh, I did a little around the house but not much else; a bit here and there once a year or so. A number of years ago, I put together a band called the Helen Highwater Stringband and they needed a third voice, so they looked at me and said, “You’re it!” “But I don’t sing!” “Well, you do now!” And they were encouraging and helpful and gave me little pointers: “That’s good, but what about this note?” “Yeah, that’s better; let’s do that.” I discovered that you don’t have to be the absolute best in the world. You listen to a record and you think, “I’ll never be able to do that!” And you’re right. But you can still do all right.
How much of what we hear on the album is live-ish?
“The Curmudgeon’s Gait” is totally live, third take, all the way through, BAM! On “Ways of the World,” Stuart overdubbed. There are a few overdubs here and there, but it’s a lot of everyone playing at the same time, too. On “Crossing Salt Creek” that’s me playing both guitars, of course.
Did you think of the two guitars as different voices?
It’s more like me handed off. They’re two completely different guitars. One’s my 1947 D-28, and one is an old Kay little-body parlor guitar; a cheap guitar. On the Martin, I had a capo on the second fret and played out of a
G position to get to the A chord, and the Kay was no capo just playing out the A chord. So those two things made it different. I didn’t want to make it sound like I was handing it off to the same old guitar, so they have completely different voices, different timbre.
Did you primarily use the D-28 on the album?
Yep, that was the main one.
Then it’s interesting you have that remark in the liner notes—“Thanks to all the great luthiers making guitars nowadays”—since it doesn’t seem like you used any guitars that are being made nowadays.
Well, I own many. “The Curmudgeon’s Gait” is the only song I didn’t use the D-28 on. I used a 1989 Santa Cruz on that one.
I would guess you’re one of those players luthiers would want to give guitars to, or at least try them out.
Some have, and most of them are really good. A lot of nice guitars out there. The latest one I received is from a guitar company called Pre-War Guitars. They’re really good; it sounds great. I also own a guitar by a luthier in Bellingham, Washington, named Dake Traphagen, and that’s a really fine guitar, too.
Your first guitar was ’55 Martin you got from your dad.
That’s right, it was D-18, although I didn’t “get” it from him—it was his, and I just played it when he’d allow me to. [Laughs] Before that, I’d had a little cheap guitar my dad got in Mexico. And actually, he bought it for his brother, but his brother didn’t want it, so my dad said, “Then give it back; I’ll give it to David.” He did, and I played that for a while.
Was that a nylon-string?
Yes. I was allowed to play Dad’s guitar every now and then, when he was playing it. “Can I play a little bit?” “Yeah, go ahead.” I said, “When can I play this all the time?” He says, “When you can walk down the hall without banging your guitar on the wall.” [Laughs] So that’s when I started to pay more attention to the guitar being a serious thing that should be taken care of. Through the years I got better and better and eventually he let me play his guitar all the time; that was cool. That guitar was amazing.
Dad was good friends with Clarence and Roland White [of Kentucky Colonels fame] and they would come to the house and have jam sessions when they came to the East Coast. I met Clarence again in the early ’70s when he played this festival in Indian Springs, Maryland. I played his guitar and really liked it and he said, “Well, Lamar”—my daddy—“I think David needs this guitar.” It’s a Mark Whitebook, a custom maker; really, really good. James Taylor has one; all these people. Clarence offered to buy me one, but my dad said, “If you recommend it that highly, we’ll just get one,” and Dad paid for it himself.
Your dad was a banjo player. Did being around that instrument so much inform your guitar style at all?
Oh yes, I’m certain it did because there are a lot of rolls in my playing, like banjo rolls in my cross-picking. So, I’m sure some of that comes from there.
Did you have any hesitation about getting into the bluegrass world?
No, it was normal.
Because you were born into it in a sense?
That’s right. It’s just like if your dad is a mechanic, you grow up knowing the names of tools and what they’re used for. So it was natural for me. I was running around backstage at the Grand Old Opry in the ’60s when my father played with Bill Monroe. A lot of people see somebody onstage and think, “Oh, man, they’re special. I could never do that.” And I would look up onstage and think, “Oh, there’s my dad’s friend,” or, “There’s dad!” I remember going to school in first grade and asking kids, “So what does your daddy play?” [Laughs]
As you got to be a better and more assured player, did you ever feel the bluegrass world was somewhat limiting for the guitar player?
No, I figured if it was, it was the guitar player’s fault. You can do anything. It’s just a matter of taste, really. Can you make it fit? Are you forcing it?
And, of course, you went on to embrace “progressive” bluegrass, or whatever you want to call it, which used bluegrass as a jumping-off point for various interesting musical directions. The David Grisman wing, for example.
Well, some folks have done that. I don’t see myself as that.
Not as much as, say, Tony Rice.
No. Tony went completely in that direction. He’s the benchmark for that thing, no question. The older I get the more traditional everything I do sounds to me. There’s some jazz stuff on the new CD—“Farewell to Redboots” has some trumpet on it [Rod McGaha]. The last guitar solo on there is amazing. Usually I’d just play the first part—the melody and the chorus—around the house. I never soloed on it until I got to the studio, and it just came out. When I listened back it has a little Wes Montgomery thing in there; there are some electric guitar bends.
You’ve played in so many different settings and in combinations. Do you think each of those has pointed you in certain directions in your playing, or do you feel as though you fit what you do in with what they do?
Honestly, you learn from everyone. Everybody has their own way of doing things, and it’s often different from the way I do things, so I get to see different ways of making things happen in a song or in the group, and then I can apply that to some of my ways of doing things. That’s the beauty of being in a band.
Are you still discovering new things in your playing?
Sure. Absolutely. Maybe a little more slowly than before. I did a session two days ago and did stuff I’d never done before, so I’m still learning.
What’s the last cool thing you learned on the guitar?
I learned a new lick the other day; just stumbled across it. I worked on it a bit so I wouldn’t forget it. I don’t have any idea how I’ll use it, but it’s always fun when something like that comes along.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.